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2022 Braves position evaluations: Third base

My Braves position evaluation series continues today with third base. Be sure to check out what has been covered thus far…

Third base

Last season’s results

After literally bringing up the rear during 2020’s shortened season in third base production (ranked 30th in 3B WAR with -0.6), the Braves finished much better within last year’s positional leaderboard as 24-year-old Austin Riley put together a breakout performance. Overall — thanks to Riley’s .303 AVG, 33 home runs, 107 RBI and career-bests in just about every batted-ball metric — Atlanta’s hot corner position ended 2021 as the ninth best third base group in baseball, quickly turning a team weakness into one of its strengths.

Braves third baseman in 2021:  .284 AVG / 38 HR / 135 RBI / 122 wRC+ / -9.3 Def / 4.1 WAR

As you can see, the only aspect of the Braves third base play last season was its defense, as both Riley (-6.0 Def) and Ehire Adrianza (-3.2 Def) ended the year with negative ratings in the defensive WAR department, causing the group to rank in the bottom-three in that regard. But as we already know, defensive metrics are still a work in progress, and Atlanta did have its share of nifty plays at third base in 2021.

As far as any support behind Riley, Adrianza did contribute as a respectable back-up last season, getting in 16 games at the hot corner for the Braves, though at least half of those featured him subbing in late in the game. Along with pinch-hitting duties, Atlanta used Adrianza at several different positions (five to be exact), and the 32-year-old hit decently, posting a .247 AVG with 16 XBH (5 HR) in 109 games, ending with a right-around-average wRC+ of 94. It was a drastic change compared to 2020, but last season third base was solid position overall for the Braves.

Changes and outlook for 2022

Obviously, Riley will man the hot corner again this season, as he enters his first year of arbitration. Many are expecting him to really “put it all together” in 2022, given the strides he made during Atlanta’s World Series campaign. As a result, you have to figure the Braves are considering some kind of extension in the near future for the former prospect. In terms of depth pieces, Adrianza is gone and now with the Nationals, after signing a one-year, $1.5 million deal earlier this month. For now it appears Brock Holt will serve as the main back-up infielder in 2022, where third base is his strongest position.  I’ve already discussed Holt a bit in my previous installment of this series, but the 33-year-old veteran is a career .262 hitter with over 1,500 innings at the hot corner, featuring roughly average defense (a career -2 DRS there). Another player I’ve mentioned before, Orlando Arcia is also an option at third, though he has only totaled three games at the position over his MLB career (all of them came last season when he was with Milwaukee).

Braves 2022 Third Base Projections

Table comes from FanGraphs third base MLB positional rankings

According to FanGraphs third base positional power rankings post this morning, the Braves are expected to rank tenth in the majors in production from the hot corner, as the site projects a small bit of regression to come for Riley’s bat but a small improvement with the glove. I wouldn’t buy too much into the ZiPS numbers, though, for they tend to be on the conservative side, especially when looking at a player that just got done posting a career-best season. Even so, FG still believes Riley will put up another 30+ HR season and finish with 95-100 RBI. I don’t care what the WAR total winds up being, that’s another nice campaign. The kicker will be making sure he stays healthy, because as you can see, the production drops off quite drastically with Riley not manning the position.

Here’s what FanGraphs had to say about the Braves third base situation this season…

“Riley drew some down-ballot MVP support in 2021, only a year after posting a below-replacement season. Yes, baseball is volatile, but it’s not supposed to be this volatile. Really, though, last year was partially a pleasant surprise and partially Riley finding an offensive level that always looked likely in his prospect days. His batted ball data tells you what the eye test would have anyway: he has top-of-the-charts power and a knack for elevating the ball. We’re expecting more of the same from him this year, along with more walks as pitchers avoid him and he adapts to the way he’s pitched. The main weakness in his game at this point is on the defensive end, but he’s looked sharper there as well, and there’s a chance that this is the year Riley puts it all together – plate discipline, power, and defense – and leaves the consistency questions behind him. For Atlanta’s sake, he’ll need to add durability to that list, because Holt and Arcia represent a giant step down. That makes this one of the highest-variance positions on the defending champions’ roster.”

My Braves third base grade:  A

I’m probably a bit higher on Riley than FanGraphs, and I believe he has a shot at becoming one of the premiere third baseman in the sport in 2022. All the signs are pointing towards him progressing even further from here, as the power has returned for this year with Riley already up to two home runs in just six exhibition games so far (as of Wednesday morning). And also, I think the kid’s defense is much better than what the metrics show, for he made plenty of impressive plays at the hot corner in 2021. Overall, I expect third base to once again be a strong aspect of this Braves team, and even more, I believe Riley will again be one of the lineup’s main contributors this season.

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